Succulent plants offer something very special to the garden. The fleshy, evergreen leaves are often glaucous and as a group they add another completely different texture to a garden scene.
Succulents fall into many different genera and come from many parts of the world. What unites them is their ability to withstand long periods without water. Many succulents are native to dry, arid regions, including deserts, where rainfall is scarce. As such they need very little watering, and are suited to growing in low-maintenance planting schemes.
Popular succulents include sedums, sempervivums, agaves and aeoniums. All are grown for their foliage rather than their flowers. Succulents also make good house plants.
How to grow succulents
Grow succulent plants in free-draining soil or compost, such as cactus compost, in full sun to partial shade. Water sparingly from spring to autumn but avoid watering altogether in autumn and winter. Most succulents are slow growing. If you grow them in pots, repot them into fresh compost every couple of years.
More on growing succulents:
Where to plant succulents
Sempervivum ‘Gay Jester’
Succulents do best in a sunny spot in very well-drained soil. Their fleshy leaves are designed to store water, so they’re able to cope with periods of drought. Most prefer a very slightly acidic soil.
Succulents will struggle to grow in poorly drained, heavy soils. A cold and wet winter will often see the loss of many. It’s for this reason that they’re ideally suited to containers. These are much less likely to become waterlogged in winter, and in particularly wet areas they can be moved undercover until spring.
Agaves are stunning, but the larger types like Agave americana are best planted away from paths as the spiked leaves are very dangerous – especially to children, as they’re often then at eye level. When growing succulents as house plants they’re content on a south or south-east facing windowsill.
How to plant succulents
Sempervivum ‘Rita Jane’
Before planting succulents into garden soil, improve the drainage by adding in horticultural grit. Avoid planting too deeply as fleshy leaves will rot if in contact with a wet soil.
When planting in containers go for unglazed terracotta pots with plenty of drainage holes in the bottom and add grit to the compost. Perfect for drought-loving succulents, terracotta pots will warm up quickly in the sun and are porus, so the compost dries out quickly after watering. The majority of succulents have fibrous roots so can be planted in fairly shallow pots.
Opt for a soil-based compost when planting large succulents such as agaves, as these plants need a heavier compost to anchor their roots. Wear gloves when handling spiked agaves as the leaves are incredibly sharp. Watch your eyes.
In this clip from Gardeners’ World, Monty Don explains how to plant succulents:
Want to grow alpine succulents? here, Monty demonstrates how to plant alpine succulents in a stone pot:
Caring for succulents
How to grow succulents – caring for succulents
In summer, water succulents in containers no more than once a week. A good watering less often is more beneficial than a little-and-often technique. In autumn and winter, reduce the watering dramatically and place container grown, tender plants in a light and frost-free place. If this isn’t possible, move them under the shelter of the eaves of the house and cover with a protective garden fleece.
Repot potted specimens once a year in spring. You won’t necessarily need to pot them into a larger container but fresh compost will be appreciated. Succulents are not greedy plants but a light scattering of fish, blood and bone when potting on is often beneficial when growing large specimens.
Succulents don’t require pruning. If foliage is damaged or dead, carefully peel it from the plant or cut off with secateurs.
How to propagate succulents
How to grow succulents – how to propagate succulents
Many of the smaller, rosette-forming succulents, such as alpine sedums and sempervivums, readily produce small baby plants (offsets). These can simply be snipped off the plant and potted on.
Growing succulents: problem solving
Vine weevils are a common problem when growing succulents in pots. It’s thought that by growing in a soil-based compost, rather than peat-based compost, the problem may be reduced. Mulching teh compost with gravel or stones can reduce infestation, too. To remedy the situation, repot in autumn and remove as much soil as you can. If you spot the grubs, either throw out very badly infested plants or quarantine them. Use a biological control in autumn, such as an application of nemotodes. Treat again in spring if necessary.
Aloe vera’s healing properties
Aloe vera is highly prized for its healing powers. Inside the leaves is a gel that’s used to sooth sunburn. Many medicinal products are made from this succulent house plant. Often grown on the kitchen windowsill so that it’s on hand to treat minor burns.
Succulent varieties to try
How to grow succulents – Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’
Agave americana ‘Mediopicta’ – a stemless, tender perennial. A large rosette of sharply pointed variegated leaves. Plants flower after about 30 years and then die. Mature height 1m
Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’ (pictured) – maroon rosettes of evergreen foliage. Tender perennial with a shrubby habit. Yellow flowers in spring. Reaches a height of 1m after many years
Echeveria secunda var. glauca – ‘Compton Carousel’ – red and yellow flowers in summer over rosettes of two-toned foliage. Height 15cm
Hylotelephium ‘Purple Emperor’ – hardy perennial able to cope in a sunny, well-drained border all year round. Dark maroon foliage and pink clusters of summer flowers. Cut back stems the ground in autumn. Height 40cm
Aloe vera – tender perennial grown as a houseplant. A stemless plant with green leaves. Reaches 60cm
Sempervivium ‘Gay Jester’ – a pretty, hardy perennial, bearing medium-sized rosettes of red spoon-shaped leaves, which lighten to mid-green at the tips. Short spikes of pink flowers appear in summer. Looks fantastic in pots, between rocks, or in cracks in paving.